Young, Muslim and French

The Majalla - 26 April 2012

The atrocities committed by Mohammed Merah highlight a dangerous tension in French society

The social integration of young muslims in France, many of whom come from third and fourth generation immigrant families, is failing. The case of Mohammed Merah is an extreme example of what can happen when social inclusion fails.

There are no official figures for the number of angry young Muslim men from North African immigrant backgrounds living in France. The secular Republic is officially color blind, meaning that compiling statistics about ethnicity or religion is not allowed. This fact was thrown into sharp focus by the seven murders carried out across the south west of the country by 23-year-old Mohammed Merah in March. According to the initial French government line, Merah was a “monster”—a lone wolf who represented nobody and nothing as he assassinated three soldiers who had fought in Afghanistan, and then four people at a Jewish school, including a Rabbi and his two young children.

French politicians have allowed an entire generation of alienated young people to grow up around their cities.

Slowly but inevitably, emphasis was put on Merah’s links to Islamic radicals. The self-styled jihadist not only professed a connection to Al-Qaeda, but had actually attended terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Before being blasted to death himself by special-forces (a post mortem examination revealed at least 30 bullets in his corpse), Merah filmed his crimes using a GoPro camera strapped to his body. The results were later set to martial music and verses from the Qur’an. Merah also openly declared to police that “the Jews have killed our brothers and sisters in Palestine.”

All of this fitted in with both Merah and his 29-year-old brother, Abdelkader Merah, joining groups linked with Salafism, the ultra-conservative brand of Islamism. Abdelkader has since been charged with assisting his brother in the murders and remains on remand at a prison in Paris. He has claimed that he is deeply religious, and solely concerned with bettering himself as a Muslim, but there is growing evidence connecting him with extremism.

As presidential elections approached, Mohammed Merah’s status as a radical Islamist was seized upon by Nicolas Sarkozy. Merah was caricatured as a classic enemy within—a maladjusted foreigner who had rejected everything France had offered him in favor of extremist violence. More cynically still, parallels were drawn with thousands of disaffected youths across France who share a similar background to Merah. Sarkozy compared the shock of the killings to the “trauma in the United States and New York that followed the affairs of September 11, 2001.” Referring to numerous police raids across France on the kind of “Muslim” estates where Merah grew up, Sarkozy said “we can’t remain idle. Other police operations will follow.” According to Sarkozy’s revised logic, Merah was certainly no lone wolf.

Merah was raised in a large, poor Muslim family, and on estates in Toulouse where discrimination was part of everyday life. Like so many of the out-of-town housing projects close to major cities, Les Izards and Mirail were blighted by unemployment rates of 60 per cent, bad schools, few community facilities and appalling public transport. Add to the mix repressive and racist policing, and they provided an environment where resentment burned constantly.

With little prospect of bettering himself lawfully, Merah soon fell into a life of petty crime. He was frequently arrested and served two short prison sentences. In common with so many who end up as teenage convicts, Merah was exposed to criminal mentors. He also became acutely aware that almost all the boys he had grown up with spent at least some time in prison. According to statistics provided by Muslim leaders and sociologists (but not the state) up to 70 percent of France’s inmates are Muslim, and most of them young men from the estates. This compares to those of the same faith making up some 12 percent of the population.

“Mohammed identified with Islam far more than with France,” is what a social worker on one of the estates where Merah grew up told me. “In this sense he was like so many other young French North Africans—bitter about their place in society, and always looking for another identity. The anti-social behavior was an extreme way of Mohammed expressing how much he hated the society he lived in. Rather than do something about the conditions which allow this to happen, people like Sarkozy just use them as an excuse to put more resources into security. But it was not Al-Qaeda that created Mohammed Merah. It was France.”

Sarkozy’s self-styled image as ‘le Top Cop’ was certainly boosted by the Merah case. He has regularly used the blanket term “security” to stigmatize Muslims, with supposed problems ranging from the halal meat they eat, to the way they pray in the street because of a lack of mosques. A reason put forward for a ban on women wearing full-veils was, for example, fears about terrorists using them to hide explosives.

How convenient, then, that Merah had himself cited France’s ban on wearing the burqa as one of his main motivations for murder. Preventing a handful of Muslim women from covering their faces in public was viewed by many as an assault on the allegedly tolerant values of the French Republic. By describing the burqa as a “walking coffin” imposed by intolerant Muslim men to subjugate women, politicians like Sarkozy were expressing deep prejudice, and again trying to stigmatize an entire community. An Amnesty International report out this week suggests that Muslims wearing traditional forms of dress face widespread discrimination as they apply for jobs or educational courses.

Marine Le Pen and her National Front have made enormous electoral gains by focusing on an alienated class of people, arguing that they present a social time bomb. This warning was clearly listened to by the six million odd people who voted for Le Pen in the first round of the presidential elections.

Remember that urban riots in 2005, which led to a state of emergency being declared across France, were widely blamed on young men from the same kind of background as Merah. Poignantly, the then Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, invoked legislation going back to the Algerian War of Independence to deal with the trouble. This included the introduction of curfews and the deployment of paramilitary patrols. Sarkozy, who was a particularly reactionary Interior Minister at the time, relished the new powers.

Of course the Merah case was an isolated one. The ruthless efficiency with which one of the worst serial killers in recent French history went about executing unarmed victims displayed pure evil, and a perversion of everything which the Muslim faith stands for. What happened was diabolical, but it in fact said very little about security in the country. Few people feel more vulnerable, In a poll published soon after Merah’s attacks, security came a lowly fifth on a list of concerns expressed by French people as they approached the 2012 presidential election.  There is next to nothing that any society can do about a murderer displaying what amounts to a suicidal determination to commit barbaric acts.

What the Merah case did do, however, was highlight how French politicians have allowed an entire generation of alienated young people to grow up around their cities. It is bad enough that Sarkozy’s government has done nothing whatsoever to deal with this problem, but now they are actually demonizing an entire class in the context of the Merah killings. They have moved up to a new level of cynicism—one which will only make matters worse for Muslims everywhere.

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